Cultural Appropriation and Pageantry

Originally, I was going to write about the impact of fabric dyes on the environment, but then the Miss Universe Pageant happened and, while I didn’t watch it, Katie has stepped up to the plate and done a round up of some of the more noteworthy outfits.

Including, much to my forehead’s alarm, Miss Canada. Desks everywhere, brace yourselves for imminent heads!

Image from Native Appropriations. Click image for original post.

I don’t even know where to begin with this.

Apparently this costume (more on that in a moment) is titled “An Homage to the Haida: Its People and Art,” and was made by someone name Rommel Manlangit, though The Google isn’t telling me much of anything about him or her. I obviously can’t say for certain that either Chelsae Durocher or Rommel Manlangit belong to a First Nation, but I’m guessing based on the the fact that Durocher is a French name, Chelsae is fluently bilingual and lives in Tecumseh (near Windsor, ie, nowhere near the West Coast) that she’s not Haida.

A screen grab of the Google Image results for "Haida Art."

And neither is half the outfit. The pattern on the bodice of the dress reads like it was trying to mimic a Haidi aesthetic, but the war bonnet (which traditionally women never wore)? The shape of the bottom of the dress mimicking a teepee? That just doesn’t make sense. Some Plains First Nations have war bonnets, but most of them traditionally lived south of the American/Canadian border, so it’s questionable if it’s even very Canadian. The Haida live mostly in what’s now Canada, along the coast of British Columbia and Alaska, but war bonnets are not something they wear. They didn’t traditionally live in teepees either – they built houses out of cedar logs. There is nothing Haida about the most visually arresting parts of the outfit, and equating garments and shapes that are associated with Plains Nations with the Haida is staggeringly ignorant.

This is a traditional Haida hat. Click for reference to Canadian Museum of Civilization

So, our representation at the pageant was a caricature of a jumble of unrelated First Nations’ aesthetics worn, replete with “stoic Indian” pose, by a women who I’m guessing is not Haida (or of another First Nation). The combination of all these factors really emphasizes how much of a romanticized and idealized image of First Nations people the people behind this envisioned. I’d wager good money that no First Nations people were involved in making this, which is both baffling and unsurprising, and hints that perhaps it wasn’t so much about honouring a rich culture so much as using an image of otherness created by white society that’s been perpetuated in the cultural eye and thus easy for the audience to interpret. If they truly wanted to make an homage to the Haida, why didn’t they get some Haida artists on board? Or someone like Dorothy Grant? (Side note: Oh my goodness her clothes are gorgeous!)

I know pageantry is over the top almost by definition, with everything being glossier and more polished and rehearsed than life. But that this passed muster in a world where absolutely everything is scrutinized, rehearsed, considered, and edited to portray a very specific image makes this even more troubling to me than your standard run-of-the-mill cultural appropriation. Hipsters in headresses at least have a passing chance at arguing that they didn’t really think about it – whoever was behind this can’t here. (This is not to say that it’s okay for hipsters to wear headdresses, because it isn’t. It’s still appropriation, and it’s still wrong – just slightly different context.) National costumes at international pageants aren’t something you just throw together and waltz out the door in: they’re crafted and very deliberately designed. So how many people looked at this and went, “Yes, that’s great!” How many more people looked at it, realized that at least something was off about it, but said nothing? And why on earth did no one do even a cursory Internet search to see if it made sense?!

And then there’s the issue that a pageant is essentially a secular ceremony where the wacky and eye-popping are paraded and gawked at. This isn’t a show of elegant craftmanship, or even necessarily craftsmanship – it’s about being out there and”¦ costume-y. Which adds a whole other level of insult to this, which is that it equates First Nations regalia (however mismatched) as a costume, something that white people dress up in rather than an important cultural and/or religious article of clothing. I don’t think I need to point out how problematic that is.

Consider, too, that many First Nations people don’t consider themselves Canadian, but rather, as a member of their own First Nation. Not only is this an appropriation of the clothing, but it’s also an appropriation, to some extent, of a First Nations identity as a Canadian identity. Considering how atrociously European Canadians have as a whole historically treated First Nations people, with an overt agenda to assimilate and colonize, it adds yet another level of insult to this mess.

Of course, it’s not like this is either the only time Canadian pageant queens have dressed up in a war bonnet (Miss Universe Canada in 2008 wore one too), nor, I suspect, are we the only nation who appropriates clothing and artifacts from other cultures at international pageants. Has a non-Roma Romanian beauty queen dressed as a Roma, say? I’m guessing this is more common than we (as North Americans) realize, but we’re not as attuned, on the whole, to distinguishing between the clothing and images of different cultures. We notice this because it’s incredibly obvious, but there’s probably subtler appropriation going on too. I had a surprisingly hard time finding pictures of national costumes going back even a few years, so I’ve got little evidence to back this up. If any of you can think of an example of this, please drop it in the comments.

So, to end this admittedly very grouchy post on a positive note, let’s brainstorm some better Canadia national costume ideas that don’t come with a whopping dose of appropriation. Sexy lumberjack? Canadian tuxedo? Toques, parkas, and hockey sticks?

Further reading and commentary:
Native Appropriations
Newspaper Rock
Miss Universe Canada



By Millie

Millie is a perpetual grad student, an internationally recognized curmudgeon, and an occasional hugger of trees. She also makes a mean batch of couscous.

12 replies on “Cultural Appropriation and Pageantry”

Late to the party, sorry. I didn’t watch the pageant, but as soon as the pictures hit the websites, head met desk. In all honesty, however, I wonder if part of this is that when people in Eastern Canada do think about natives, it’s Oka (maybe) and everything west as kind of a lump.

To answer the last question, I swear I remember seeing an international pageant where the Canadian contender was dressed as a gold rush saloon dancer. In retrospect, it was cute, non-appropriating and had the sexy Halloween costume feel some of the other outfits (wasn’t the US entry “Sexy Revolutionary Soldier?).

On that note, too bad no one has the sense of humour to go with the hooser/stripper costume Silas and Frankie wore on The Rez. (Their justification is that obviously the women would find sexy. It’s what their husbands look like.)

Yeah, that whole dress was a mess on a number of levels.

As a side note – a number of First Nations groups who live in what is now Alberta and Saskatchewan had war bonnets associated with their people and culture, so in terms of a regional thing, yes, it can be considered “Canadian.”

Oh wow, this is all sorts of offensive. To appropriate is one (very icky) thing, to not even do it in an authentic way is doubly insulting. But thank you for writing about this, I have to admit I don’t know much about First Nations people (or their culture) at all. But seemingly, a lot of Canadians don’t, either.

Um remember the time you wrote about my dissertation topic in a persephone article? :-D But seriously, I think while the dress was a stupid stupid choice the appropriation of First Nations culture is a huge issue anytime we talk about Canadian identity. From  about the 19th c onward (when the literary idea of the noble savage was created) knowing the wilderness and being kind of it was equated with nativeness. Later, when Canada was trying to create a stronger national identity (really in the period following ww2 until expo 67 or at least that’s what I write about) CBC radio and film programming further established this link with a lot of programming about a) the wilderness and b)appropriating and misrepresenting first nations or inuit culture.(I write about the music in these plays and shows) .  As a result, even now, in Canada we equate wrongly appropriate First Nations and Inuit culture with our own understanding of the Canadian wilderness and ourselves. Even though these very same people remain the most oppressed in our country.

On a less angry-academic sort of note- I am loving all the Canadian love on persephone!

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